Critics Need More than a Thumb

The recent string of articles on the role of critics including smart pieces by Daniel Mendelsohn, Jacob Silverman and David Ulin, sent me back to the archives and this timeless piece of fish wrap I wrote for the Raleigh News & Observer in 1997.

By J. Peder Zane

It happens fairly often. We’ll run a glowing review, and the author will contact me to say thanks.

Usually I reply, “Well, you deserved it,” when what I want to say is, “Don’t thank me; you wrote a good book. Fail next time and we’ll give you daggers instead of laurels.”

Less frequently, I’ll hear from a writer whose book was not praised. My usual reply is, “I understand how you feel,” when all I really want to say is, “Write a better book, and you’ll get a better review.”

But as I near the end of my first year as The News & Observer’s book review editor, I must admit that all of those responses miss the point of our work here. For while it might appear that we are in the thumbs-up, thumbs-down business, offering judgments on books is the least important thing we do.

Let me explain by starting with one of the great conundrums of our business: Why is it that the reviews of so many books are all over the map – praised by some, damned by others, yawned at by others still?

Taking an extreme example, in her daily review of John Updike’s newest novel, “Toward the End of Time,” Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that the book “prompts the same question raised by Joyce Carol Oates’ last novel: How can such a gifted writer produce such a lousy book?”

Yet in the Times’ Sunday Book Review a few weeks later, the novelist Margaret Atwood called Updike’s novel “deplorably good. If only he would write a flagrant bomb. That would be news. But another excellently written novel by an excellent novelist – what can be said?”

What we should say is: How can two such highly respected, knowledgeable and literate people come to such contradictory assessments of the same book?

No doubt politics plays a part in these matters. Some book review editors have writers they wish to support or debunk and will go out of their way to find reviewers who think the way they do. And, generally speaking, novelists tend to be softer than full-time reviewers on their colleagues who misfire, perhaps out of empathy or fear of retribution.

But I am convinced the more important reason runs deeper. It is the generally unstated, but central, paradox of all criticism: To write effectively, reviewers must argue with the force of one presenting the final word – because it is their final word at the time – even though they are simply expressing their personal opinion.

Of course, not all opinions are equal, which is why not everybody is asked to write reviews. An ideal reviewer does not know the author but is intimately acquainted with his previous work and subject matter. In assessing the work, all reviewers must tackle a basic question: What problems did the author pose and how well did he or she resolve them? Then reviewers must ask: How complicated and nuanced were those problems and how elegant and insightful were their solutions? These questions conjure the pitfalls of subjectivity and taste, but they also are crucial. If we simply viewed books within their own contexts, how could we express the qualitative difference between Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Grisham’s “The Partner”? Would a review of “Mein Kampf” that simply said Hitler has his reasons for hating the Jews without saying those reasons are repugnant truly be an effective piece of criticism?

It is this inexorable subjectivity that makes book reviewing tricky because the answers – as Kakutani and Atwood demonstrated – are rarely cut and dried. It means that the least interesting thing about a review is the critics’ opinion, while the most important aspect is how the reviewer arrived at that assessment.

Therefore, the purpose of a book review, then, is not so much to tell readers which books we think are deserving of their limited time, but the process itself of taking books seriously. Whether we praise or pan a book is secondary to the act of honestly engaging a work, whatever the result.

This would all be so much abstraction but for the fact that so many Sunday book reviews around the country are abdicating this intellectual responsibility, becoming quick-hit consumer guides. Some book sections now no longer run reviews of more than 500 words, just like People magazine. Others have taken to assigning letter grades to books, e la Entertainment Weekly.

No doubt some readers see a virtue in this cut-to-the-chase brevity. But when the least interesting thing we do is raise or lower the thumb, making that the only thing we do is totally missing the point.

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